Wangechi Mutu: a Hero’s Journey between her Kenyan Homeland and our Future

 

Wangechi Mutu was born in Nairobi  in 1972.  She graduated in 2000 from Yale University with an MFA. 

Her work, in which she uses  collage, painting, sculpture, immersive performance, has received significant attention since she graduated.

She works sometimes in Nairobi and sometimes in New York.

 

 

An important concern of the artist is the female body in colonial Africa, in Africa today and in the ‘West’.

 

 

The female body is a mirror both of the ills and degradation of our civilizations; and of their highest aesthetic value, repository of every innocent, birthing  and nourishing thing.  

Consequently, the artist’s images of women are both beautiful and inviting; and insecurely positioned and alarming and faintly repulsive. 

 

 

 

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One Hundred Lavish Years of Bushwack, 2004, cut and pasted printed paper with watercolour, synthetic polymer paint and pressure-sensitive stickers on transparentized paper. 

Wangechi Mutu, Kenyan born 1972. MOMA, NY

 

 

 

These works, especially on mylar, are, in fact, so intriguing and now so ubiquitous on social media that they may have lost their piquancy and may be moving into the category of desirable collectibles.

 

 

The work immediately below which dates to 2007 has been on rotating exhibition since 2009 as part of the Rubell Family Collection of 30 African-Americans. 

 

 

 

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Non, je ne regrette rien, 2007, ink, acrylic glitter, cloth, paper collage, plastic, plant material and mixed media on Mylar, and details. With light interference.

Wangechi Mutu, Kenyan born 1972.

Exhibited in the 10th year of an exhibition of the Rubell Family Collection, currently at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

 

 

 

In 2019, the Metropolitan Museum acquired a large diptych made by the artist in 2008.

 

In the left panel, a humanoid alien: one eye blue and one brown of the history of colonialism in Africa.  The skin of her face pustulous and glowing an iridescent green.

 

Spores travel through her body. The artist has spoken about the evidence of illness – some with gross distorting features – in her African world.

These spores may also be an image of the sicknesses of our societies.

 

Mechanical items at the joints of  the creatures’ limbs.   Misplaced body parts protrude from her body.

 

Neither sad nor happy.  Merely observing and striding through a landscape with a lit grenade held by the bones of her left foot. 

 

 

 

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The dipytich is 8 foot tall

 

 

 

In the right panel, a tiny woman balancing on detritus, and looking downwards to inhospitable places of no obvious safety.

 

I don’t know in what sense the artist uses the word ‘lies’ in the title.

 

 

 

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My Strength Lies, ink, acrylic, photomechanically printed cut and pasted paper, contact paper, metallic sequin and glitter on two mylar sheets; and details; 2006. 

Wangechi Mutu, Kenyan born 1972. 

Metropolitan Museum, NY from whose online site these images are taken on the occasion of the accession of this diptych

 

 

 

Below is a representation by the artist in bronze of a sea woman: nguva in her native culture.   She lures unsuspecting humans into the waters. 

The artist has said that these creatures live both on land and in the sea.  They are believed to be real. 

 

They are real, the artist says, in the sense that they are dugongs: a sea mammal (with the fabulous Order name:  Sirenia).

 

For the artist, this belief in ‘reality’ speaks to the alternative ways Sapiens has of envisioning the world;

ways which have come, more and more, to be overlain with just one way: the rational, fact-based, proof-requiring scientific model deriving from the Enlightenment.

 

 

 

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Water Woman, 2017 (this cast 2018), bronze; several views.

Wangechi Mutu, Kenyan born 1972.  Baltimore Art Museum

 

 

The Metropolitan Museum, NY offered the artist a commission – the first of this kind – to place sculptures in the niches on either side of its massive front door. Late 2019.

 

The work below – The NewOnes Will Free Us – was so warmly received by the public that the museum has extended the stay of these works from January to June 2020. 

The artist’s statement on this work follows:

 

“The poised, stately figures I have created for The Met facade derive inspiration from my interest in ancient and modern practices that reflect on the relationship between women and power across various traditions, including the weighty symbols and adornments worn within certain African traditions as well as the cumbersome burdens of ornately clad caryatids.

I look at the contradictory aspects of such human expressions, in which women are respected for their strength, resilience, and wisdom and yet suffer for it, too. Often the wealthier the women, the higher their status, the heavier and more enormous the marks and objects they carry.

These insignia in The Seated, belonging to no one place or time, become dimension-bending tools and time-traveling mechanisms. The mirror like disks are instruments that trigger reflection and beckon futures in which there is hope for decency and empathy, and triumph over inequality and prejudice.

I want these figures to appear to have come from elsewhere, from afar, recently alighted in the four niches. They look as if they are charged with a role and responsibility. They have come to look and bear witness, and to reflect back to us what we are.

Amid the deep existential crisis we are immersed in, The Seated—conveying a presence that is as much celestial as it is deeply human—aim to send a signal that things can and shall be different.”

 

 

 

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The Seated I, 2019, bronze.

Photo is courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

 

 

 

The artist’s work is being associated with Afro-Futurism:

 

an aesthetic in film and video, the graphic arts, music, literature including comic books and science fiction which link Africans and the African diaspora with the aid of technology, to the fullest expression of autonomous human life. 

 

I am wary of this form of futurism as I am of all such forms:  promises of everlasting or reincarnated life for us as individuals.  Even if I recognize the encouragements such promises bring to human lives.

 

 

 

 

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Seated I, Metropolitan Museum of Art, November, 2019

 

 

 

Unable to read these sculptures or any part of Afro-futurism literally, I can read them metaphorically.

 

 

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  The Seated II, 2019

Photo is courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

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Photo of Todd Geisler in the NY Times, published 11/20/2019

 

 

 

These Seateds concentrate at least two  important ideas of the artist.

 

These are women, not degraded or sexualized, but imposing.  Wearing, as the artist has said,  signifiers of age, status and wisdom  which are common among several African tribes. 

 

Come as truth-reflecting crone/sages: roles which remain in many traditional civilizations.

 

 

 

 

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The Seated II, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, November, 2019

 

 

 

Secondly, these creatures are, like the mermaid, hybrid.  Come to observe, reflect and represent something. 

 

The artists proposes that they will save us.

 

 

I take it that what the artist is saying is not that aliens will literally save us. 

 

But that if we move our guiding philosophical models to include ideas and interpretations which may not be provable facts and theories, we may be able to save ourselves.

 

 

 

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 The Seated IV, 2019

This photo is courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels 

 

 

 

I take it also that Afro-futurism is a harbinger of changes to come with the rise of China, India and, finally, of the African continent, who, despite the adoption everywhere of ‘Western’ economics and surface layers of ‘Western’ culture,  run in channels profoundly not ‘Western’.

 

 

 

 

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The Seated IV, Metropolitan Museum, NY, November 2019

 

 

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The Seated III, 2019, bronze 

This image is courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

 

 

 

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The Seated III, Metropolitan Museum, NY, November 2019

 

 

In the midst of the massive movement of peoples across the world, one cannot but be glad of the ever-growing prominence of an artist who is able to represent views and present images hardly ever seen on big ‘Western’ stages.

In the hope that something gives.

 

 

Wangechi Mutu is not naive, though.  She expects no quick miracles. 

Her Seateds do not speak, may not hear, do not imbibe and do not always see.

 

That is to say that they are passive.  It takes for people to come to them, communicate with them (with themselves). 

 

Their common name is The NewOnes. 

 

But they are old, very old:  the old ones.

 

 

 

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 The Seated IV, 2019

This photo is courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

 

 

 

The crone/sage is a human archetype.

 

They have come before:  the myths of many cultures are populated with them.

They have made predictions before.  They have offered guidance before. They are frequently forgotten.

 

Wangechu Mutu has brought them before us again.  In an unaccustomed guise, perhaps.  In an unaccustomed place. 

 

But, as  she says, in hope……..

With sentinels now at the door, sprouting messages even in their degraded state…….

 

 

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Sentinel 1, paper pulp, wood glue, concrete, wood, glass beads, stone, rose quartz, gourd, 2019. 

Wangechi Mutu, Kenyan born 1972. 

Whitney Museum of (North) American Art Biennial 2019 from whose site this photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Wangechi Mutu: a Hero’s Journey between her Kenyan Homeland and our Future

  1. Astonishing work. The water woman lured me most, but the niche bronzes are so imposing; the sense of magnificent self-possession that I encountered among many of the women I met in Kenya, old and young.

    1. I agree, Tish. The niche bronzes have been met with so much warmth because they do represent an idea which one doesn’t see much around: calm, dignity, patience! Sarah

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